The incoming Senate minority leader will be the most influential Democrat in Washington come Jan. 21. A shrewd tactician with a taste for deal-making and an even bigger appetite for the media spotlight, the decisions he makes in the next few months and years could have a larger-than-expected influence on the course of Trump’s presidency. The problem is that no one, including Schumer, knows exactly what to expect from Trump.
“The question really is what does Donald Trump mean when he says he wants to make America great? He may just mean getting stuff done. And if he means that, the best way is to take his marching orders from Republican leadership,” said Matt Canter, a Democratic operative and former Senate aide. “But if Trumpism is a real thing, then there will be some brawls with Republican leadership. And that’s where Schumer comes in. And i think he will ably and adeptly carry Democratic principles and push an agenda into that kind of divided Republican landscape.”
After an election in which the Democratic Party was abandoned by rural white voters, having a healthy-egoed New Yorker Jew as your titular figure may seem like a discordant note to strike. But within Democratic circles, there is hope that Schumer brings the right skill set to the role of leader-in-exile during the Trump years.
It’s not just a politically acute sense of the difficulties his party confronts. Though, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee after the 2004 cycle, he has experienced a fairly close approximation. It is that, culturally, Schumer has much more in common with the president-elect than does House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Chuck is a creature of the legislative process, and he understands that the art of the possible needs to be negotiated before you get to the art of the deal. Democratic Party strategist Anita Dunn
Before he ran for office, fellow New Yorker Trump donated to Schumer’s campaigns and publicly called him a friend. A meeting with Schumer was once a prize for contestants on Trump’s reality TV show, “The Apprentice.” And for that reason, there is hope that Schumer may be able to cajole, sweet talk, flatter and ultimately move Trump in directions that aren’t always aligned with the Republican Party.
“I think he understands where Trump is coming from,” said Anita Dunn, a longtime party strategist. “Both have navigated New York City for a long time and know each other well. Chuck is a creature of the legislative process, and he understands that the art of the possible needs to be negotiated before you get to the art of the deal.”
If Trump is the type of president prone to taking the advice of the last person in the room, Schumer would stand to benefit from keeping lines of communication open. It certainly would fit his style. Top Republicans and Democrats in the Senate agree that Schumer will be far less adversarial than the man he is replacing, Harry Reid of Nevada. “He ain’t Harry. I know that,” said one GOP leadership aide. “He will be easier to work with.”
“Chuck is a naturally hands-on guy,” said one former Schumer staffer, who spoke about him on condition of anonymity. “He doesn’t leave things to chance. To the extent he can influence the direction, his instinct is to get involved.”
But there are no guarantees that Schumer will, in fact, be that last voice in the room. If anything, the amount of actual access and leverage he enjoys will likely be minuscule ― dependent largely on to what extent Senate rules (mainly, the filibuster) grant it. And if Trump’s legislative priorities mirror the promises made during the campaign, Schumer may find himself in an adversarial role very quickly.
Those close to the senator say he is prepared to hold his caucus together in defense of President Barack Obama’s major legacy items but that he also believes small concessions can sometimes stave off massive defeats. On the Affordable Care Act, for instance, aides on the Hill expect Schumer to try and find middle ground by, for instance, allowing for exchanges to sell catastrophic plans or putting more emphasis on health savings accounts, in hopes of avoiding a contentious fight to repeal the law entirely.
Likewise, while Schumer is prone to wage a fight against Trump’s Supreme Court picks, he recognizes that McConnell can (and very may will) change the rules to allow confirmation by majority vote.
“The Supreme Court is gone,” conceded one top Senate Democratic aide.
All of Schumer’s tactical decisions are colored by the difficult landscape ahead. In 2018, more than half of his caucus is up for re-election, many in states carried by both Mitt Romney and Trump. Long driven by the logic that your principles only matter if you have the power to implement them, Schumer is expected to give a bit on Trump’s agenda in order to accommodate some of his more endangered members.
But those close to him caution that he is far more likely to play the role of stopgap than pushover. Schumer may very well try and woo Trump, with an appeal to their shared cosmopolitan sensibilities, but his time is going to largely be spent playing defense against the rest of ― what now is ― Trump’s party.
“With 60 votes, he holds power,” said Jim Manley, who served as Reid’s top spokesman during the early Obama years. “I just don’t think that the takeaway from this election is that House Republicans are going to want to compromise much, and that’s going to leave Sen. Schumer to try and block a lot of stuff.”